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Monday, November 3, 2008

Interview with Tobias S. Buckell (Interviewed by Jacques Barcia)

Official Tobias S. Buckell Website
Order “Halo: The Cole Protocol
HERE (November 25, 2008)
Order “Sly Mongoose
Read An Excerpt

Caribbean-born author Tobias S. Buckell is one of the newest voices of the so-called New Space Opera sub-genre. In his novels Crystal Rain, Ragamuffin and Sly Mongoose, Tobias has built an immense fictional universe that mixes traditional SF tropes with steampunk, zombies and Latin-American aesthetics. All that with a high dose of action and adventure packing serious issues like slavery, poverty and duty. In this interview, Buckell talks about his love for steampunk, the impact of foreign cultures in SF and current projects:

Q: So far, you've written three standalone novels (Crystal Rain, Ragamuffin and Sly Mongoose) set in the same universe. Could you give a description for those who haven't read them yet?

Tobias: Each of the three books is a far future adventure, featuring a repeating handful of characters with Caribbean backgrounds, living in a future dominated by aliens who rule over humanity in various ways. Each of the novels is about humanity's bid for freedom and self-governance, and with each novel a bit more of the tapestry I've created is pulled back so that people can dig deeper into this universe I'm creating.

Q: You've described Crystal Rain as a Caribbean steampunk novel. For Ragamuffin, you said it was a Caribbean space opera. What can you tell us about your latest novel Sly Mongoose?

Tobias: Sly Mongoose is pretty much a mash up of the space opera and steampunk elements I liked about the previous two books, with a dose of hard sf thrown in there. It's set on a Venus-like world, with floating cities and blimps, and people getting lowered down in the high pressure murk of the surface to scavenge for what they can.

Q: Zombies, flying cities, post-humans. How did you come up with the setting?

Tobias: The setting came from one Geoff Landis, doing a presentation on Venus, where he mentioned that at 100,000 feet or so, the incredible pressure relented, the heat dissipated to bearable levels, and breathable air was a lifting gas. I right away saw the potential to play with all these set pieces and have some fun. One thing pretty much led to another!

Q: The setting you've created is vast. How's your worldbuilding process?

Tobias: Well, I had Geoff's help here for the world of Chilo. As I thought about the setting my mind just branched out to the possibilities of the setting. As I wrote down and sketched out the cities, I modeled them somewhat on Greek city states, thinking that each city would be a civic society of its own, which then led to my descriptions of techno-democracies. The dangers of the surface begged to be used, so I looked to the high pressure diving suits used underwater for inspiration. Blimp attacks, since the crushing atmosphere and clouds would play a role, would play out like submarine battles. My imagination just ran with it all.

Q: Your books are full of action but also discuss themes like slavery, duty and poverty. Is there a priority between the two?

Tobias: Primarily I'm obsessed with entertaining the reader. I really want to make sure they always get a rip roaring, fast read, b/c it's what I bloody well want more of as a reader myself! I miss the compact novels of a few decades ago, and I read a lot of YA that is plotted and offered up in tight form these days.

But underneath I try to pack in a lot of stuff under the surface. My favorite review of my second novel, Ragamuffin, was from a reviewer who read it once and really enjoyed it. Then she went back for a second close read, and wrote this very flattering review of all the thematic stuff I'd packed in that she hadn't paid attention to on the first read, as she'd been caught up in the pace. So these things are important to me, but I can't stand 'preachy' fiction that hits you on the nose with its message, or strawman characters who embody the most simple and extreme argument of the position the author is trying to dispute.

Q: Having mixed so many genres and tropes, do labels apply to your work? If necessary, how would you label your own fiction?

Tobias: Space opera is the label I feel the most akin to, though I have a side-interest in steampunk that's been on the other burner ever since I read The Difference Engine. You'll see that creep into my work over and over again, but ultimately I love the big sweeping adventure of Space Opera.

Q: Space Opera is very strong again and you are one of the authors rewriting it, along with [John] Scalzi and [Alistair] Reynolds. What do you think this new wave of Space Opera has added to this sub-genre?

Tobias: I love the New Space Opera, and I'm digging what it's doing. The main addition is just freshness again, getting it incorporated right back into the heart of the genre and bringing in new readers with the adventure and scope.

Q: Some of the most interesting SF and fantasy authors today come from outside of the US and England. I'd call Ian McDonald, Ekaterina Sedia and Zoran Zivkovic as some easy examples. What do you think these “foreign” backgrounds, including yours, add to the SF field?

Tobias: They're adding a depth to the field that, to me, didn't feel as strong when I was first reading SF/F. It's very exciting to see authors liking Vandana Singh, Nnedi Okarafor, Nalo Hopkinson and others coming to the table. It brings more readers into our field, it makes it more welcoming to the future, and above all, it has gotten some damn fine science fiction and fantasy for us to read.

Q: You're one of the authors in the audio anthology Metatropolis. Can you tell us more about what the antho is? And what can you tell us about your particular piece?

Tobias: The anthology is a collaboration between John Scalzi, Elizabeth Bear, Karl Schroeder, Jay Lake and me. We brainstormed a common setting: the cities of the near future. Bouncing off each other, we then set out to write novellas that riffed on each other's stories.

My piece is a noir-ish riff on a future Detroit, and the attempts of people to reclaim abandoned parts of the city for a neo-green urban revival project, if Blackwater-types don't crack our hero's skull in first. It also features riffs on crowd-sourcing. I've been doing the Space Opera/far future thing for so long, it was great to write a long piece set in the near future for some very SF-nal exploration. I hope people find it interesting!

Q: What can you tell us about your current and/or next project? Any novels coming? Will there be more novels in Crystal Rain/Ragamuffin/Sly Mongoose's setting?

Tobias: Right away, this November 25th, is the next Halo novel, The Cole Protocol. I got to take my high-action instincts to town on a videogame that I play a great deal, so that was a lot of fun.

There are plans for more novels in the [Crystal Rain/Ragamuffin/Sly Mongoose] sequence, but there are some other projects on the table as well. To be honest I'll have definite time tables and plans early next year.


Larry Nolen said...


It seems both you and me had impeccable timing in interviewing Buckell. Fascinating to see how our questions parallel one another's in places and yet there are many areas that one covered that the other left untouched. Very cool interview, to say the least, and I think I have "hooked" my middle brother by noting Buckell is writing the next Halo book :D


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